Some staff will be chomping at the bit for the chance for some face-to-face contact and others will be feeling apprehensive about a return to the office environment, but either way, the easing of lockdown presents very real management challenges to welcoming back employees after what has been a most extraordinary year.
Whether it’s staff coming back to the office full time or in a hybrid way after working from home or a period of furlough, this is not a return to business as usual. Experts warn that the combination of post-COVID stresses and fundamental changes to employee expectations require careful consideration and employers have a duty of care to avoid “re-entry syndrome”.
This isn’t simply about adapting working spaces, but also finding new ways to motivate teams and rethinking how to lead businesses through change and solve new business problems as we emerge from the cloud of COVID.
A ‘more compassionate’ leadership style
Lesley Heath, a business mentor and founder of business consultancy A Matter of Choice told ICAEW Insights that new approaches were needed as crisis fatigue and burnout kicked in. “A lot of organisations are reverting to their command-and-control hierarchies, but brilliant leaders are the ones who take time to reflect on the impact they have on other people.”
Heath said the end of lockdown by no means signalled the end of uncertainty. The post-pandemic era called for a more compassionate leadership style, Heath said, and she urged those in senior positions to lead by example. “Don’t over-commit and don’t over-promise. Take time to reflect on whether decisions you make are commercially and ethically right.”
In particular, consistent, regular and honest communication with staff is critical, as concerns around job security and health and safety worries come to the fore. Emma Swan, Head of Commercial Employment law at Forbes Solicitors, said providing clear updates about how things are changing will help create more reassurance and confidence among staff.
“By engaging employees, companies can also better understand their concerns and aim to more quickly and effectively address any issues. This should help promote better morale and employee wellbeing and reduce the risk of stress, anxiety, frustration and anger compromising return to work plans and productivity,” Swan said.
Julie Taylor, a partner in the commercial team at law firm Gardner Leader, said employers need to be sensitive to the differing perceptions of risk by their employees as a result of their own very personal experiences of the pandemic. “Employers will need to be sensitive to this and they should therefore take steps to address any concerns on an individual and compassionate basis.” As the concern felt by employees may fluctuate, a more gradual transition back to more normal routines should be considered.
Flexible mindset, individual treatment
Before requiring any employee to return to the workplace, managers should speak to individual team members to understand any concerns they may have and to understand whether they want to return to the office full time or how any longer-term home working arrangement could work, taking into consideration any health impacts that may require adjustments.
Any changes to working arrangements intended to be more permanent – for example, a change to specific days or hours working from home or the workplace, or an agreement to work more flexibly but covering certain core hours – should be detailed in writing. “It is often useful to include a trial period with any changes or a gradual increase in the number of hours spent in the workplace where possible and requested,” Taylor advises.
Have a clear roadmap of what return to work looks like, how flexible working requests will be considered, and clarify new expectations on modes of work. “Negotiating clear boundaries around working schedules, communication methods and times to respond makes it easier for all concerned,” says Laura Trendall Morrison, Founder, Gamechanger Consultancy.
This is also an opportunity for organisations to re-evaluate policies and procedures and bring positive changes in supporting mental health in the workplace. “Employees may be reluctant to disclose the personal impacts, particularly with the economy so badly hit raising fears of redundancy, so creating a safe, open and non-judgemental environment in the workplace, whether in person or remote is key,” Trendall Morrison says.
Trendall Morrison said ensuring line management staff are adequately trained in the skills of listening, emotional intelligence and empathy to truly build a picture of the concerns of the workforce and prepare an appropriate business response to concerns and risks that this brings up. Now may also be the time to be looking for volunteers to train in the company as mental health first aiders and buddies.
And of course, there’s still a requirement to keep providing socially distanced space, sanitisation, screens and face shields – it's about respecting personal choice and levels of comfort, Trendall Morrison adds. “Everybody has the right to feel safe, physically and psychologically at work.”